July 26, 2007
By Josie Bloomfield
Vance Ramsey was a medievalist by profession, but by disposition he was a defender of the underdog, and that was his deepest lifelong pursuit. When I saw Vance walking toward me with a particular set of his shoulders and mouth, I knew that he was on a mission to save someone or to fight against "evil" -- and I have to say that he was in that stance more than he wasn't. I know that I was hired to be his fellow medievalist because he perceived me as a scholarly underdog, fighting against the academic consensus on the editing of "Beowulf," just as he had fought for decades against the scholarly consensus on the order of the manuscripts of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales."
He no longer put up his dukes in faculty meetings by the time I arrived in the English department in 1993, but I was given to understand that his physical feistiness had been common in the not-so-distant past. I should add, perhaps, that he was an ex-Marine, and his ex-Marineness was also central to his being: as he stood ready to defend the weak, he did it with squared shoulders and a military crease in his pants, totally ship-shape. He was known to lift refrigerators single-handed, and I once found him standing on my desk, knocking tiles out of my office ceiling that he thought might be harboring mold (saving me from asthma).
Vance was very proud of his disputes with the scholarly world, especially when he was able to get a rise out of some of the big names in the field, but his big project on the Chaucer manuscripts was also a labor of love, which he finished -- at great personal expense -- after his retirement. After his book came out, he brought me two gigantic boxes containing all of his notes and drafts for the book and made a gift of them to me, hoping that they could also be of use to me in my teaching and work. It was utterly typical of his generosity to hand over decades of scholarship so casually, and that followed dozens of other occasions when he had left books or articles in my mailbox that he thought might interest me or help me.
Vance's own interests outside academia were vast: politics, local to international; music, local to international (I had barely landed in Athens before he introduced me to The Local Girls and burned me a Rarely Herd CD); languages, genealogy -- he engaged in each with a dizzying intensity and, where individuals whom he knew were involved, with deep personal loyalty. He really was one of a kind.